Can England win Euro 2016?

England v France

England v France at Wembley. Photo by Ben Sutherland, http://www.flickr.com

If England were to be crowned European champions in France this summer it would come as something of a surprise to me. By then of course, Leicester may already be Premier League champions and an English triumph at the Euros wouldn’t be as big a shock as that. Still, England have never previously won the tournament nor, remarkably, ever even made the final.

Recent friendly matches were an opportunity to assess the form of Hodgson’s squad and their prospects when they cross the Channel in June. A 3-2 victory away in Germany was a significant statement of intent, subsequently tempered slightly by a 2-1 loss at home to the Netherlands a few days later.

What struck me most about these recent matches is the extent to which the England side has changed from the last major international tournament, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Let’s compare the starting line-ups from England’s crucial group game against Uruguay in 2014 with the team that took the field in Berlin last month.

Uruguay v England (19/06/14)

Hart, Johnson, Baines, Cahill, Jagielka, Sterling, Henderson, Gerrard, Sturridge, Rooney, Welbeck.

Germany v England (26/03/16)

Butland, Clyne, Rose, Cahill, Smalling, Dier, Henderson, Lallana, Alli, Welbeck, Kane.

Only three players – Cahill, Henderson, and Welbeck – appear in both line-ups. Several others who played against Uruguay may also start England’s first match in Euro 2016 against Russia with Hart, Rooney, and Sturridge probably the most likely among them.

Nevertheless, it’s a significant overhaul of his side that Hodgson has undertaken. No bad thing that in all likelihood given the fact that the ‘golden generation’ scarcely got anywhere near bronze.  So is the 2016 vintage better?

Defensively I don’t think it is. England are a team that leak goals against decent opposition and there’s quite a lot of inexperience at the back. Clyne is average in my view and Rose has a lot to learn before he can consider himself a master of international football. Smalling is a link in the chain that opposition sides will regard as vulnerable.

The emergence of Alli provides some real dynamism and vigour in midfield, of the sort that Sterling briefly promised at the World Cup but has failed to deliver this season at Manchester City. Lallana, after failing to convince me in his early days at Liverpool, seems to be growing in confidence and influence. Henderson is no Steven Gerrard, for club or country (I suspect Klopp may be inclined to let him leave in the summer).

Up front things get particularly interesting and, as has been the case for rather a while now, the biggest dilemma concerns Rooney. The Manchester United striker is more often found splitting opinion than splitting defences these days.

One school of thought maintains that Rooney is still England’s most important player and should be the first name added to the team sheet. A dissenting school contends that peak Rooney was reached quite a long time ago and while he might retain a place in the squad, he should not feature in the starting eleven.

Hodgson is a cautious manager by nature and thus I suspect that Rooney (if he’s fit) will start in the game against Russia. Personally, I would pair Kane and Sturridge up front although Vardy certainly deserves consideration for the extraordinary season that he’s having.

There are goals in the current England side and they look like a much more threatening proposition than the team that limped so meekly out of the World Cup with just two goals in three games.

The recent round of friendly fixtures point to an open championship coming up and England are far from alone in carrying defensive frailties into the tournament. It should make for entertaining viewing.

Scotland, sadly, won’t be in France this summer but will be facing England in World Cup qualifying later in the year. After our recent friendly in Prague, Gordon Strachan observed: “we are not a great side but we can turn ourselves into a decent side by working hard.” That’s a fair summary of our current state and I think it also describes where England are at the moment as well (although they undoubtedly have a lot more quality).

Roy Hodgson justifiably claimed that the win in Berlin was his best night as England boss but went on to acknowledge that: “we have got an awful long way to go before we can claim to be anything like Germany with all they have achieved.”

Hodgson has been a master of expectations management since taking charge. The hype and hysteria that used to carry England teams into tournament battle has largely dissipated with more sober assessments being made of a squad that is good but lacking in greatness.

How much greatness is there elsewhere though? The Germans looked quite ordinary in qualifying (Scotland were unlucky to lose to them twice); the Spanish have lost more than a little swagger of late; the Italians are hardworking but not exactly inspired under Chelsea-bound Conte; the French face the pressure of playing at home (something that worked for them in 1998 but could easily go against them); while the Belgians will rightly travel in hope but I’m not convinced they yet have the expectation of victory.

The UK referendum on leaving the EU falls between the end of the group stages and the start of the knockout phase. England have a favourable group so there shouldn’t be any Engxit before a potential Brexit.

So, can England win it?  Yes, given how open it looks to be and the shortcomings elsewhere. But I don’t think they will. Hodgson is a realist and his assessment is correct: it’s only a short journey to France, but his squad still has a long way to go.

The Monday Post – 17/11/14

Photo by: Football Gallery www.flickr.com

Photo by: Football Gallery
http://www.flickr.com

This new format of spreading international games over several days is still taking a bit of getting used to. Some people seem to have just got bored and given up entirely. I was amused to discover that more viewers tuned in for the BBC quiz show Pointless on Saturday night than for ITV’s coverage of England v Slovenia. I’ll let you do your own puns. The quiz show averaged 4.99m viewers with a peak of 7.26m while the football averaged 4.56m with a peak of 6.3m.

By all accounts England were pretty terrible and still won pretty comfortably. It’s not surprising then that interest in this current team and qualifying group is so low.

Rooney won his hundredth cap and scored a penalty. Wellbeck helped himself to a double. All of this happened very shortly after Henderson had scored an own goal to give Slovenia the lead. I’m not sure that there’s much else to say about the game other than that apparently Uefa made the Slovenians travel in a team bus to the stadium despite the fact that they were staying in a hotel just 50 metres away. Meanwhile, over on pointless …

TV producers love to get those shots of teams emerging from the bus and entering the stadium. Most players bounce off the bus with enormous headphones and try to either put their most serious game face on or make a strenuous effort at appearing serene. Some have huge bags and suitcases as though headed for a fortnight on the Costa de Sol while others make do with just a tiny wash bag.

The scene then cuts to the studio where former pros will make their pronouncements: “the boys look relaxed” or the “boys look focused” or “the boys look up for it.” Actually, the boys just got off a bus, that’s all. I wouldn’t read too much into it.

The tendency toward pointless analysis is now reaching such heights that it surely can’t be long before ‘the boys getting off the bus’ becomes subject to video analysis with slow-motion replays and comment being made on the formation.

There are no points available on Tuesday night when Scotland and England clash at Celtic park in what’s likely to be a feisty friendly. Viewing figures will probably be considerably higher than for England v Slovenia.

The other game that I was interested in at the weekend was Italy v Croatia. My love of Italian football has been well documented on this blog but Croatia is my adopted home (and team) as my wife is Croatian.

A 1-1 draw in Italy was a good result for the boys in the tablecloth tops but sadly, like a 70s disco act, Croatian supporters got a bit carried away with their flares. The game was interrupted twice as a result, with the players taken off the field for 10 minutes on the second occasion.

This is not the first time such incidents have occurred with Croatian fans (and they are far from the only ones who treat flares as a routine part of the match day experience) and I think it’s time that the authorities got stricter on stamping out flares at games.

The dangers inherent in lighting a flare in a crowded enclosed space (often with children in the vicinity) are pretty obvious. Speaking about the trouble at the San Siro, Croatia’s coach Niko Kovac said: “I was ashamed and I apologised to the Italians after the game. There were families with children up there.”

Let’s hope in future that Croatia’s considerable flair on the pitch is not overshadowed by a minority of fans who insist on the pointless endeavour of lighting flares in the stands.